Ladies Home Journal
Streisand: A Star is Reborn ... with the help, she says, of the man she loves.
By Jan Ardmore
The house is of rough, dark wood, high-peaked as an Alpine chalet, and through great slanted windows light spills into a mass of greenery: creeping Charlies, philodendron, trees in tubs, ferns and ivy, plants of every size and leaf. The sun splashes red flowers in a vase on the bar in the breakfast area, catches the plum silk of an antique lamp shade, highlights patches of color in the cushions of the sprawling harem- lounge, warms the red Moorish rugs hanging like banners from the balcony.
It has a message, this house. Rough wood and massive stereo speakers symbolize the presence of Jon Peters. The soft, deep-textured fabrics, the old-time look, pastel pictures of mother and child, little antique things (a fan, a beaded purse) and, pegged to the middle of the mirror, the plumed hat she wears in A Star Is Born—these say Barbra Streisand. And the living greenery stands for a love that has changed both their lives. The greenery in the house is only the beginning. It spills over into the 20- acre ravine Barbra and Jon found three years ago, north of Los Angeles, and converted from scrub and gravel hillsides into Green Mansions. Two thousand trees have been planted, hundreds and hundreds of flowering shrubs. In Barbra's English garden, the girl from Brooklyn has earthed every flower she ever longed for.
"I'd never thought of living in the country. I was allergic to fresh air," she explains. "When I was a kid, I went to camp—my mother sent me away from the time I was five. I developed asthma. I even had asthma attacks the first few nights we were here. Too much greenery; I wasn't used to it. I said, ' Look, Barbra, you're not five years old, your mother hasn't sent you away from home, you're not at camp, and you can leave any time you want." The minute I conditioned my mind, I stopped being allergic. I love it here. You are very much in touch with the earth, with the natural things that happen. I never used to walk or ride a bike. I never breathed deeply before."
Curled up in a wide chair in the garden, she is a far gentler Barbra than you've seen on screen—softer, more delicate, a small-boned being, intelligent and quick; and seeing her here in her own world, you are constantly aware of the seductive child she so essentially is inside that mature talent. This is the Barbra you will see on screen for the first time in A Star Is Born, the motion picture she and Jon have produced together. That, as a matter of fact, is the reason Jon wanted to do the picture - he wanted the world to see Barbra on screen as she is, a more intimate side than she's ever revealed.
She laughs when you repeat what he's said. "Jon thinks no one has ever seen me, and, of course, he's right. People put me into a category: she plays this kind of role, just as the press puts me into a journalistic image they think people will pay to read about. I hate images." In Hello Dolly and Funny Lady she played much older characters. In Funny Lady as in Funny Girl she played Fanny Brice, and "audiences always think that you are the character you play. A Star Is Born has been much more meaningful for me. I was trying to show that a woman is not just one thing, not just strong and aggressive. She can have opinions, be adult, but she's a little girl, too, and she likes to play.
"I had turned down the script in the beginning; I didn't see the point of a third remake of A Star Is Born; but when Jon became interested, I became interested in just why this movie should be made again. I realized it offered me a chance to say a lot of things about women that I deeply feel. As a woman in this business today I see so much male chauvinism—and the price we women are constantly paying for those backward attitudes. I wanted to explore the woman/man relationship today, the role-playing today as opposed to that of the '30's and the '50's.
"Also, because of our own relationship, Jon and I wanted to film a love story-not ours, actually, but the essence. The script, as originally written, was a good documentary, but it didn't have real heart. It was a harsher look at love. We tried to combine this modern documentary feeling with an old- fashioned, emotional love story. We hoped to move people, make them feel, give 'em a good cry. Making a movie can be such a personal true form of expression. We'd be riding along talking and have a discussion that might end up in the script next day! Not everything that happens in the movie happened to us (God forbid), but you can use your imagination.
"Like the first time Jon ever saw me he said, 'You got a great behind.' I really liked him for that because most people don't treat me like a woman. It is so disarming, so honest. That's in the movie. And the role-playing. Jon started out feeling our relationship had to be 70/30. I said, '50/50.' It got around to his saying, 'Okay, 60/40.' Now it's finally 50/50. "Jon has always had women cater to him like a king. He is a very, very strong personality and he wasn't the least intimidated by me. I used to say, 'Hey, come on, be a little intimidated.' He never was. The first time we ever met, when he came to do a wig for me during For Pete's Sake, I kept him waiting a long time. When I walked in, he said, 'Don't you ever do that to me again.' I liked that. I like the way we fight and make up, adore each other, spit at each other. I played all the roles he expected of me, did the laundry, did the cooking, rode horseback, even learned to jump hurdles. Then one day I said, 'Watch this!' The horse jumped, I fell off; that was the end of the horseback riding. I was so scared of horses I used to get an asthma attack. I love to eat well and like to cook, but I'd rather plan and supervise. When I do it myself I don't enjoy eating; it's no longer fun for me. Instead of playing the role of being the domestic person I really am not, I'd rather hire someone to cook—or eat out."
All these realities have found their way into A Star Is Born because Jon is producer and Barbra executive producer. She even wears her own clothes, "some lovely antique pieces I've had for a long time. That's why the credits read: 'Miss Streisand's clothes from her closet.' " The picture carries the designation: A First Artists' Presentation, a Barwood/Jon Peters film for Warner Bros. release. For the first time since Barbra started in show business, "Nobody could fire me! I could have an idea and carry it out. Nobody could say, you can't; what they've been saying since I was 18."
She has, of course, an instinct and ability far beyond acting. She remembers, at age three, her mother speaking with another adult and hearing them misinterpret each other. She remembers how frustrated she was at not being able to tell them; and she has been frustrated virtually ever since by people who misinterpret her. "I didn't know from 'liberated,' but I've always had opinions and they seemed to make people so angry, maybe something in my personality makes people mad, do you think? I remember being at yeshiva in Brooklyn, that's a Hebrew school. I had very good marks in academic subjects, but my conduct was always marked poor. I was so impatient. I'd sit there holding up my hand and when the teacher ignored me, I'd talk anyway. We'd study the Bible and I had questions: why, why, why? It didn't go over well.
"Then you're hired on the Broadway stage for the first time, you're hired to do a small part and you say, 'Why can't I do it this way?' And they say, 'It can't be done.' 'But I did it this way at the audition and you loved it! Please let me . . .' At the audition for I Can Get It for You Wholesale, I'd said, 'I'd like to sit down, please, because I'm so nervous, and I think it would be funny.' So I sat on a secretary's chair on casters and rolled around talking to the audience. They loved it at the audition, but in production they wanted me to stand up, do it their way. P.S. After doing it their way, they finally let me do it my way and, to make a long story short, it stopped the show, which made them even angrier!
Talent appreciates talent
"Opinions, my opinions . . . they got me into trouble the minute I got to Hollywood. That's when it started, that shopworn line about my directing my own pictures. Not true. What was true was that I knew what I wanted to do in Funny Girl because I had played it a thousand times, literally, on the stage. There were maybe eleven versions and I'd break down the scenes of all the versions and rewrite the thing, trying to get the best from every scene. Willie Wyler, who is a fine director, was totally appreciative. I loved working with him. I always had the sense of his watching me like a really fine, clear mirror. When he said it was right, you knew it was. And the cameraman. Harry Stradling, who was always a pro—anybody who is really a pro and talented appreciates other talent; it's only the mediocre who are threatened—anyhow, they said in the press that I was telling the cameraman what to do and he was boiling. The reality is that Harry Stradling did my first four films with me. We worked together until he died. We had total mutual respect. The same with Bob Surtees, the gifted man who photographed A Star Is Born.
"But in Hollywood generally, they are still not used to women. All along the line, it is still more difficult for women to be in a position of authority in this industry, and for me, from the beginning, it was: Who is this girl? What does she know about movies? Well, you either have imagination, see things in terms of composition and color, or you don't. Scene after scene, picture after picture, I'd say, 'Why don't the lights change?' They'd say, 'You can't do that.' But in this picture they changed the lights! I was inspired by the lighting from our own living room: colored lamps, sky-lights and stained glass. When you see the movie, you'll see the house Jon and I had built by our terrific production designer, Polly Platt (a woman!) in Arizona, all out of hand-carved wood and stucco, with lofts and ladders just like the lofts and ladders in the children's rooms: my son, Jason, 9 [by her marriage to actor Elliott Gould] and Jon's son Christopher, 7 [by his marriage to actress Leslie Ann Warren]. The boys are great buddies and they each have a room of rough, dark wood with bunk beds and a ladder to the play lofts above.
"What we wanted in the film was an old-time look that would look modem. All the great Garbo films had extraordinary lighting, far more romantic and illusory than some of today's style of stark reality. In films, I like beauty, romance and illusion. One night I was looking in the mirror. It was dark, just my dark face and the light from our red lamp- shade shining through my hair. That's how the idea came for the lighting you'll see when I'm singing my first song and again when the picture ends. It was great fun helping to design a set and putting skylights and stained glass in the ceiling, incorporating the things we have around us and find beautiful, into the movie.
Can't stop caring
"We were looking for something to do together. I knew Jon would be a good producer and he'd be good for me; he knows me. I'm made up of a lot of opposites: aggressive and very shy; ambitious and totally lazy. All I did this summer was plant flowers; it was an effort to get me back-to work. Once I do work, it becomes an obsession. Totally. I've never learned to proportion time and energy and I don't know that I ever will. I'd like to, but I can't stop caring so much. Jon understands. He also won't let me get away with anything. Like this song at the end of the movie, which is seven and a half minutes long. I sang it and everybody was knocked out, but Jon and I both knew better. He said, 'You'd better keep those cameras here and do it again tomorrow.' Twice that happened. Jon knows when I can do more."
Obviously, Barbra was in on every phase of production. She knew what kind of music she wanted and hired the people to write it. "I wanted the characters to reveal themselves through their music." She wrote two songs herself: "Evergreen" and "Lost Inside of You." Barbra played one song back for me on a small screen. You can tell by the phrasing, the spontaneous little gestures, that she was singing live. She's always wanted to do that, only to be told you can't. They don't do live music in films; they use a pre-recorded sound track and the singers "lip-sync" to what they've previously recorded.
"Every time I sing a song I sing it differently," Barbra explains. "I can't concentrate on performance if I have to worry about my lips moving. If you notice some old movies, when people sing, they hardly move their mouths or their throats. There's no life in a performance like that. But in A Star Is Born everything is live. Also, the concert which we gave as part of the picture. A real concert. The biggest crowd they ever drew at this stadium at Arizona State University: 55,000 people. And the press en masse. It wasn't my concert in the picture, it was Kris Kristofferson's as John Howard Norman, and Kris was great. He's the best he's ever been in this picture. Very honest and beautiful, with that delicate emotional stability/instability you had to have for the character. Very right. So it was his concert and we filmed it live. And I sang, even though crowds frighten me. I tested out material I was going to use in the picture. So exciting! I can't even describe it to you. The crowd was wild! Yet reporters couldn't wait to blast us. Why?"
She's in love so she's hired her hairdresser boyfriend as producer. That was the tone the press took. "But why would I do that if Jon couldn't deliver?" Barbra says softly. "I'm a responsible person; I'm also, I hope, an artist."
What she knows is that Jon Peters has a flair for business and that the same expertise that made him a fortune out of a string of hair salons would enable him to bring this picture in on time and on budget.
But the press response hurts. Why has the media, which loved Barbra when she was new to show business, turned on her now that she's become a superstar, so that every word seems to be written not with a pen but stiletto? She asks me why, and my answer is that the American public has a penchant for building heroes and then knocking them down.
Barbra agrees. "When they see someone struggling and on their way, they're for 'em, they identify. Once that person makes it, he or she is different. They want to tear her down and make her like everyone else. They want the power to destroy. It's like someone asking me for an autograph when I'm in a restaurant with the children and a handful of ribs. I say, 'Look, I've met you and you've met me, but why do you have to have it on paper?' Especially if I'm with our kids. I don't want them to be self-conscious. And people turn on you for that. They aren't going to buy any more of my records or see any more of my pictures—that's what they say. We put some of that in the movie, too. It hurts my feelings. My feelings are in this picture. I never wanted to be a star, signing autographs and all that. I wanted to express myself as an artist; I didn't bargain for the rest of it. When I saw Gone With the Wind, it was Scarlett I wanted to be, not Vivien Leigh. It hurts to have people turn on you, to have them stand right beside you at a preview and say, 'Her nose really isn't as big as I thought.' "
And the person who helps her keep doing that is Jon. "With him I've learned what is most important to me—that everyone has his own reality. There is no one truth; everyone has their own, and the art of living is to know your own reality and respect that of others. What a great thing to learn! My own truth. Jon started me in this direction and we both go to a therapist who is a genius. He has helped me assert my own authority. I tried to say that at the press conference we held for the picture at the concert. No one understood. They think I've always had authority. They don't understand that I never did. I begged the powers-that-be to throw out the whole score of one of my pictures. Finally, all I could do was shrug and say, 'Okay, your loss.' All these years I wanted to direct, but I never dared say it, even to myself. Now I want to take the responsibility for my own choices and my own visions. I've grown up.
When you love you can hate
"Love made me grow up. You can't be a child and have a relationship with another human being, or do anything really creative, like having a vision and executing it as an actress. You have to grow up and discover your own truth, share it. You live a vacuous existence alone. Totally selfish. You don't face issues, you run away. Jon has taught me not to run. In the picture, I wanted a scene about loving and hating. It's when you love someone you can hate them: I never admitted that before. It was a liberating thing for me, because now I can say I hate without destroying love. It's part of the struggle of building a relationship."
Ask her about marriage and she says she respects it. "Not as an institution, but as a final commitment, a beautiful, romantic gesture, because that's the way it should be. But there is also a kind of excitement in not being married—you can never take each other for granted. But then you don't take a good marriage for granted, either." Many of her feelings about the "man/woman thing" are in this picture. And in the picture she does marry . . . but when she wants to. He asks her to marry him several times and she says, "Are you kidding?" Then, at a certain point, she proposes to him and in that scene she's wearing a man's suit. "You get married when the woman wants to get married."
But her face is radiant speaking of Jon. "He's a good man, a good father, strong but loving. I'm lucky. I'm probably in the worst position in the world for finding a good man; most men are so weak. But he is strong. We've taken a big risk on this picture, but what is the worst that can happen? If it fails, Jon and I will have more time for that personal life. The art of living. The children."
Motherhood has always seemed a miracle to Barbra. "I'd never thought I'd ever have a child. I thought I was different from other people, as if it weren't meant to be. I look at Jason now and remember that I actually carried him and gave birth to him, and now he sits at the piano composing music. We might even use something he's written when we score the picture."
Barbra Streisand. In this interview, as in A Star Is Born, she is herself —woman/child, aggressive/vulnerable, opinionated/frightened, but also honest, warm, articulate—and human. For a girl who's always been told she can't, she now knows her own truth: she can.